Trouble on board
Sometimes Middle-Eastern-looking men are just Middle-Eastern-looking
May 13, 2003
Some questions beg for punch-line answers. I was recently asked
to share with an audience how a Middle Eastern looking man of the
swarthy persuasion negotiates his way in a security conscious America.
Loath as I was to sound glib, I could not resist the inevitable
answer: carefully. The response got a laugh but at the same time
it committed me to the testimonial style.
For instance, I went on, people in my racial profile know better
than to blithely venture into airports. At such places I engage
in what sociologists call “impression management.” I
dress up, wear my horn rimmed glasses, carry a leather bound book
and smile my most genial smile. The follow up question did not have
a punch-line answer: “Does that work?”
Now, I had to tell them my story.
On March 4th of last year I was on my way to deliver lectures at
Williams College and the University of New Hampshire at Durham.
I gave myself a wide berth at Chicago’s O’Hare airport
for lengthy searches and interrogations but my progress to the departure
gate and the boarding were uneventful.
The doors of the plane closed and a few passengers changed their
seats for comfort. I too changed my seat as the aircraft started
to taxi, happily bouncing and chirping. The pleasant whirr of the
plane’s air conditioning systems and the metronomic click
of its tires crossing concrete lines of the runway bode well for
my post-9/11 maiden voyage.
I was dozing when the pilot’s voice came on announcing that
due to technical glitches we were returning to the gate. The explanation
was revised as we arrived at the gate: actually, the problem was
one of security. There was an air of nervous anticipation on board.
Moments later four burly men, thick with bulletproof vests, were
asking me to take all of my belongings and accompany them off the
airplane. A gauntlet of gaping passengers, pale with fear and fidgeting
with anxiety awaited me. Some necks craned out for a better view
of the offender.
At occasions like this the unwritten laws against staring are suspended.
As I passed through the corridor that leads to the gate I asked
one of my honor guards why I was being escorted off the plane.
--“United [Airlines] is going to refuse you service.”
--“Because there was trouble on board, Sir. And you initiated
Of course, I had not spoken to a single soul let alone initiate
Back at the gate my carry-on bags were thoroughly searched and
my identity was called in. Everything checked out. Again I asked
for clarifications and the United representative explained that
I was in the wrong seat in violation of FAA rules. Also, while trying
to retrieve something from my carry-on I had touched the flight
Was I to assume that my Middle Eastern looks had nothing to do
with the crew’s overreaction? One of the black clad security
guards answered my question with a non sequitur: “You know
what? Since September 11th all of our lives have changed.”
I was not looking for an apology -- which I was not to receive at
any rate. I was prepared to accept the non sequitur as explanation
and get on with my travel plans.
But returning to the plane was not in the cards. I was told that
the pilot was refusing to allow me back on board. I had not been
a confrontational or abusive passenger. And I surely was not a security
risk, as the United representative personally booked me on the next
American flight to my destination.
As the aircraft pushed off from the gate I was thinking of my audience
in Williamstown and the long wait for the next plane. But foremost
in my mind was the thought that I would never be vindicated in the
eyes of the people on that plane.
My exclusion did not enhance the safety of the passengers of United
flight 386, nor did it diminish the security of those on board the
American flight 1496 that took me to Albany four hours later. Getting
back on board would have been the least of my rights as a citizen
who has been singled out for scrutiny and cleared of all suspicions.
More importantly, it would have communicated to my fellow passengers
that sometimes Middle-Eastern-looking men are just Middle-Eastern-looking
men. Compared to expelling a peaceful passenger who was proven innocent
and perpetuating a stereotype, the cost of allowing me back on the
board would have been minimal to the flight crew. They would have
had to accept the implication that they had initiated a false alarm.
Few Americans have not heard the arguments about how difficult
times call for tough, agonizing choices between liberties and collective
security. But I would have understood agonizing choices.
In my case, I would have lived with the suspension of the presumption
of innocence and public humiliation in exchange for collective security
or the perception of it. But on that day I saw precious little agonizing
by those who determined my fate. The maxims of that day were clear:
“better safe than sorry” for “us” and “tough
luck” for “them.”
My audience waited in vain for a dénouement, a morale which
my story lacked.
Afterwards, a man presented me with a Martin Luther King American
flag that was forged as a lapel pin. The slain Civil Rights leader
believed that red, white and blue were too restrictive. He believed
that stars and stripes in black and white more fully symbolized
the diversity of America. I wear that flag often but never to airports.
Ahmad Sadri, is the Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See
Mamnoon Iranian.com Month
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